Faith, hope, love and Our Lady
A talk given for the Advent Day of recollection by Sr Ann Catherine Swailes
One of the most wonderful things about being human is surely the gift of language, and it's one that perhaps we rather often take for granted. I regularly Skype with a dear friend and former colleague now living in the mid-west of the United States, and I'm in awe of the technology that makes it possible for us to converse as we used to do when we were sitting next to each other in my office in Cambridge. And yet, in a certain sense, the physical distance between us is irrelevant. The very fact that human language can do the job it does at all, that the noises we make with our mouths or the marks we make with ink on paper can communicate such complex concepts and desires, is the real miracle wherever we are. And perhaps it's one we only really notice on those occasions when it doesn't work. I was once working as an au pair for a German family, and was bewildered when the lady of the house told me one morning that we were going to have mice for supper. I spent the day in some trepidation, but at the evening meal nothing more challenging than sweetcorn appeared on the table - for which the German word, is indeed Maiss, clearly, when I was capable of thinking calmly about it, related to the English “maize”. On another occasion, I was utterly baffled by a friend's telling me that there were several labour wards in her part of town, until I realised she was talking, not, as I'd initially assumed, about hospital maternity units, but about voting patterns in local elections.
The serious point of all this is that such confusion about language is most likely, and potentially most damaging, not when we've no idea what's going on, and we know we've no idea, but when we think we understand what something means and it turns out we've got it wrong. And the trio of words that we are exploring together today, faith, hope and love, are so familiar, so commonplace, and yet so profoundly important to our life of faith, that it would be all too easy to make this kind of mistake with them.
Each of these words, faith, hope and love, have meanings in every day parlance that are related to, but not entirely identical with, the meaning they have in the Church’s teaching, and precisely because we do use these words in day to day speech, there is a risk of confusing, not only ourselves, but others, when we use them, or hear them being used in any other way.
Fortunately, however, we are not left alone here. In fact, we have the best of guides. As the Second Vatican Council tells us in its great document on the Church, Lumen Gentium, speaking of Our Lady, that she is both the foremost and best disciple of her Son, and also our model, showing us, in particular, what a human life marked by faith, hope and love should look like. It is for this reason, the Council Fathers tell us, that the Church honours her as a most beloved mother.
So how does Mary show us the true nature of faith, hope and love? We could doubtless look for evidence in any of the snapshots the Gospels provide of her life: at the wedding feast at Cana , for instance, or supremely at the foot of her Son's Cross, Mary clearly had need of faith, hope and love in abundance. Or, we could think perhaps about those apparitions of Our Lady authenticated by the Church where, consistently, at Lourdes or Fatima, for instance, Mary urges the faithful who gather to venerate her to place their faith, hope and love in her Son. Howeer this talk will focus on the Mary of the joyful mysteries. Mary as she waits for the birth of her Son and welcomes him in the stable at Bethlehem.
On the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, we heard as the Gospel reading at Mass the story of the Annunciation. We are so familiar with the story of the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, from our liturgy, from our praying the rosary, from countless depictions in school Nativity plays, Christmas carols, Christmas cards, that it scarcely needs retelling now. But what does it show us about Our Lady as a model of faith? And, in particular, how can it alert us to various distortions in our understanding of this virtue that might make it harder for us to grasp the greatness of the gift we have been given in our faith, and, at least as seriously, make it harder for us to speak of our faith to those amongst our families and friends who do not share it, who are perhaps attracted, in some cases, to what they see our faith does for us, but put off from seeking it for themselves because of what they mistakenly believe faith to be and to require.
One way into this, I think, is in thinking about the relationship between faith and obedience. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this connection, and indeed, points out that it is to be found in scripture itself. But Obedience is, of course, a virtue with a bad press in our culture: think, for instance, of the so-called Nuremberg defence in which leading players in the Nazi regime purported to justify their participation in the dreadful crimes of the Holocaust on the grounds that they were “only obeying orders”.
But there has been a long tradition of seeing the Annunciation as Mary’s undoing of the disobedience of Eve in the Garden of Eden: medieval hymns and carols delight in pointing out that the Latin word Ave - Hail, the first word of Gabriel to Mary, is Eva backwards, that the New Eve, in her great yes to Gabriel reverses the disaster set in train by the refusal of the First Eve to comply with the divine will. However, the contrast is more subtle and complex than is sometimes realised. . It is worth pausing to look at this because I think what it tells us about Mary’s obedience, and thus about her faith, is of rather great significance.
The Fathers of the Church loved to reflect not only on the contrast between Mary and Eve, but also on the contrast between Mary and another, much more recent recipient of an angelic visitation, her cousin by marriage, the priest Zecharaiah, father of John the Baptist.
At first sight, the treatment of Zechariah by the angel who visits him in the Temple with the news of Elizabeth’s conception of John the Baptist seems unjust and perhaps more than a little petulant, especially when compared with the conversation between Our Lady and Gabriel. After all, both Zechariah and Mary question what they are told, but while she is lauded as the one full of grace, soon to be acknowledged by Zechariah’s own wife as blessed among women, he is punished with the humiliating affliction of speechlessness, . What is going on? The difference, of course, is that Mary questions, but she does not allow her questioning to limit her faith in divine providence: she cannot understand how she is to be a Mother, given her virginity, and – significantly, and perfectly reasonably - she wants to know how this will come about, but accepts, on the delegated divine authority of the messenger, that it will be so. How can it be, she says, since I know not a man, not “it cannot be”.
Zechariah, on the other hand, refuses to take into account the angel’s authority, and takes his stand, so to speak, on his doubt: he cannot understand how normal biological limitations can be overcome so as to permit Elizabeth to conceive, and so he refuses to believe that this is possible, is not interested in any further discussion of the matter. What, in other words, is being punished in Zechariah’s case is not questioning - Our Lady herself questions - but, rather the setting up of his own understanding as the limit of his questioning, even, in a certain sense, a refusal to question enough: I do not understand how this can be, therefore it cannot be.
Intellectual obedience is a real obligation for Catholics. But to say that we are required to assent to the Church’s teaching is not to say that we are required not to question: that is a caricature of our faith, which non-Catholics often mistake for the reality. In fact, if Our Lady is truly our model here, it would seem that questioning is in fact one of those things that, being not forbidden, is all but compulsory. And, in this, she has been followed by the greatest saints in our tradition. We might do worse than remember, for instance, that, almost the first section of St Thomas Aquinas' great theological text book, the summa theologiae, which was intended in the first place for the education of future Dominican priests in the Middle Ages, begins with the statement: it seems there is no God. Thomas goes on to raise the very modern sounding objection to belief in God that it seems incompatible with our experience of suffering in the world: the answer he gives would be a topic for another day. The important thing to notice for now, I think, is that he asks the really radical question.
Interestingly, I think we can also see Mary’s questioning obedience as the model, not only for our own individual obedience of faith, but also for that of the Church as a whole. This, after all, is what we'd expect if Our Lady is indeed, as Vatican II tells us, the perfect disciple and the model of the Church.. Perhaps this stands out most clearly if we take a short detour into the early centuries of the Church’s history when the Creed we say or sing every Sunday at Mass was being written. In one sense today we take for granted, even though of course we acknowledge that these are mysteries too big for us ever entirely to understand, a whole range of teachings about who Jesus is. We say every Sunday in the Creed, for instance, that He is God from God, light from light, true God from true God: in other words, that Jesus is just as much God as is God the Father. We also say that, for us and for our salvation He came down from heaven, was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and became man. In other words, Jesus isn't like one of the gods of Greek or Roman mythology who sometimes pop down from Mount Olympus disguised as a human being., pretending to be one of us. He truly is one of us, truly is human. But it took the Church several centuries to hammer out all this theology, and for good reason. It is mind-bogglingly hard to understand how it can be that God could be born as a baby and die on a cross, and so some in the earliest years of the Church came to believe either that Jesus was not really God, or that these things only appeared to happen to Him, andt thus He wasn't really human. The Church gradually came to see that if Jesus is truly our Saviour, He must be both fully human and fully divine - that's a long and fascinating story for another day. But the important point for now is that this dawning realisation, the process that gave us our Creed, was only possible because people were prepared to ask questions. Each time a conclusion was reached about what Christians needed to believe about who Jesus is, this didn't close down debate, but, rather, opened it up. And in this the Church behaved, not like Zechariah, but like Mary.
How can it be, if Jesus is truly God from God, light from light, consubstantial with the changeless Father in heaven that He comes to suffer in our human flesh? How can it be, since I know not a man?
In the light of all this, a perhaps little observed contrast between the First and the New Eve is also relevant. The difference between Mary’s response to the good angel at the Annunciation and Eve’s response to the evil angel of Eden is not that between unquestioning obedience, as the Church is sometimes accused of teaching in the case of Our Lady, and indeed sometimes also accused of mandating for us her children, and questioning disobedience, but, precisely, I would suggest, the reverse: the difference between questioning obedience - in the case of Mary - and unquestioning disobedience in the case of Eve. Eve does not, when the serpent tells her that she will become as God, enquire “how can this be?”: she simply swallows the lie along with the forbidden fruit. And the consequences are, in both her case and our Lady’s, immediate: the proud Eve hides herself: Mary, in confident humility steps forward, so to speak, into the limelight: behold, the handmaid of the Lord.
Fundamentally, what all this points to is that faith is not just about the abstract acceptance of propositions. Rather, it is about trust in a personal God, even when, perhaps especially when, we do not entirely understand His ways with us. Faith, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us is “first of all a personal adherence to God”, a “giving assent to God with one’s whole being” It is precisely because of Mary’s trust in God that she can both ask the radical question when confronted with what sounds like nonsense, a contradiction in terms - a virgin shall conceive - and accept that she will be given all that she needs in order to live up to this extraordinary vocation: behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to thy Word. We need never fear, then, as Catholic Christians, that our questions are too radical, nor that they will alienate us from the God who loves us and longs for us to relate to Him in honesty and trust, even when He leads us along dark and mysterious pathways as He led Mary to Bethlehem and Calvary.
The way we use the word "hope" in our everyday parlance can be confusing in at least two ways, I think, when we come to reflect on what we mean by the theological virtue of hope. We either see hope as a fairly weak aspiration after a frankly improbable good, as in “I hope it will be nice weather on Sunday for the parish pilgrimage to Walsingham” when, in fact, every year within living memory the heavens have opened at the beginning of the Holy Mile and the rain hasn’t let up until the coach has left for home, and we’ve no real reason for supposing it will be any different this time. Or, perhaps not unconnectedly, we think of hope as being inextricably bound up with the idea of the stiff upper lip, a somewhat grim determination to keep calm and carry on stoically when things are going against us: where there's life there's hope we say, even when we feel at our most hopeless.
All of this suggests that there is a certain fragility, even perhaps a kind of unrealistic quality about hope: I hope it will be a nice day, but I’m actually fairly sure it won’t be: I’m hoping for the best, but, interiorly, I'm preparing for the worst. And yet, the way in which the Church encourages us to think about hope suggests something much more solid, more real, more rich, more exciting and consoling than this. Above all, I think, it can be helpful to think of hope, Christian hope, as a new way of seeing the world, not through rose tinted spectacles that encourage us to pretend that things are not so bad when in fact they are, but through the eyes of God, who sees the world exactly as it is, as a place of both extraordinary suffering and extraordinary loveliness, and, ultimately, as a place that makes us long for heaven, not simply as a way out of our misery, though of course it is perfectly legitimate to be consoled by our hope of heaven when things are going badly for us, but also, and perhaps more fundamentally, as a fulfilment of our joy and an answer to the longing in all our hearts for the deepest kind of happiness. I once took a small group of students from the chaplaincy where I work on a visit to Prague, looking at religious art and taking part in grand liturgy in a series of magnificent baroque churches, each seemingly more breathtakingly gorgeous than the last. At the end of our time together I asked them what had been the most significant experience of the trip. One lad, an American , who, before coming to Cambridge for graduate studies had never previously left his home state, stunned all of us with the sincerity and simplicity of his answer. He said "I've been walking around all week just dazed by the beauty of this place. And then I thought: "but this is just an earthly city...what must the heavenly city be like?". That, I think, is, in a sense, the essence of Christian hope.
Pope Francis, in his address at a papal audience I was privileged to attend, also with a group of students on pilgrimage from the Catholic chaplaincy in Cambridge, made a helpful distinction here between optimism and hope. Optimism, the Holy Father said, disappoints. Hope does not. And this was so, he went on to suggest because hope does not offer us an escapist fantasy, denying the darkness and terror of our world, which inevitably cannot deceive us forever. Rather, it shines a light on precisely that world, the light of Christ who came into that very world to be born among us at Christmas.. Hope, Pope Francis told us, makes the desert of our world, the desert of our lives, bloom, revealing beauty and fertility in a landscape we might previously have found arid and lifeless. So hope offers us then, not a new world, but a new vision of this world.
Here, reflecting on who Mary is, particularly in a quite straightforwardly human way, as a daughter of Abraham, a daughter of the Old Covenant, may, I think help to enrich further our understanding of hope.
Advent is unique among the liturgical seasons of the Church’s year in that the compilers of the lectionary of Mass readings chose for these four weeks to fit the NT readings, which come from a variety of sources, around a selection of OT texts more or less exclusively from one book, the book of the prophet Isaiah. In these wonderful passages of poetry, that maybe some of us find hard to read without the soundtrack of Handel’s Messiah playing in our heads as a kind of holy earworm, we are indeed presented with a magnificent new vision of the world, with image after image of radical reversals of expectations and transformations of familiar landscapes The desert blooms, the valleys are lifted up while the mountains tumble down, melting like wax; ferocious predators live peaceably alongside their natural prey; the people sit in darkness and see a great light.. These are texts with a universal appeal, a universal relevance, and whatever our own situation, we can benefit from meditating on them. They are given us in the liturgy, precisely to help us grasp onto a new, hope-filled vision when our minds are insistently filled with other pictures that we fear may be more realistic. They help us to dare to reach out to something that the images that fill our news broadcasts, the pain we, or those we love may have to undergo, our own memories of shame and failure might prevent us from accepting: the insight that nothing is impossible to the ever-active creativity of God. There is no barrier He can’t tear down, no captivity He can’t overthrow, no darkness He can’t illuminate. Nothing is impossible for God.
But, for all their timeless. universal quality, the prophecies of Isaiah also have a historical context. Old Testament scholars tell us that the earlier sections of the book of Isaiah were written, probably, some eight hundred years before the birth of Christ, when the Kingdom of Judah was threatened by the political power and military might of the neighbouring Assyrian empire. These include, for instance, the passage about the lion lying down with the lamb and the wolf with the bear that we heard last Sunday. Later passages include the haunting promise that those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength and put out wings like eagles, and are likely to have been composed some three hundred years later, when the citizens of Jerusalem and Judah were taken off into exile in Babylon.
It is poignant to listen to many of these texts today, to read, for instance, of swords being beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks, when nation shows no sign of ceasing to lift up sword against nation, and when training for war is in as full swing as ever it was. But, of course, this was equally true when the text was written, probably in the 8th century BC, and it has never consistently ceased to be true in the intervening centuries. For both Jewish and Christian audiences, however, through the centuries, the prophecies of Isaiah have nevertheless been a profound source of consolation. The extraordinary events described in the poems of Isaiah may not yet have come to pass, but the very promise of a future peace reaches back into present turmoil and makes it bearable, and the gift of this promise in turn becoming part of an inherited memory of God's gracious ways with his people, an assurance that all time is in his hands. Each succeeding generation has read Isaiah and the other prophets as the texts that sustained those who went before them in their experiences of oppression, and this in itself has given them a healing and strengthening quality for those who come after. And so it must have been for Mary and Joseph, and for all those like them among their contemporaries who, as St Luke puts it so strikingly were waiting for the consolation of Israel,. They were waiting for freedom from Roman oppression, certainly, and heartened to know how their ancestors had waited, strengthened by the promises of Isaiah, in their own times of trial and political bondage, but they were also waiting in an openness to the possibility of something humanly quite unimaginable, quite unprecedented, that the poetry of Isaiah gestures towards, a coming Kingdom of peace, justice and love ushered in by the appearance on earth of the Messiah.
I think we Christians, who believe that he has already visited us in the flesh he assumed from Mary, can learn much here from our Jewish brothers and sisters who are still waiting in hope of the Messiah's first coming. Some years ago, I had the privilege of attending a talk by the rabbi who was then the chaplain to the Jewish students of Cambridge University, and was left with two overwhelming impressions. First, there was a real sense of being in the presence of the spiritual tradition that nourished Our Lady, the spiritual tradition into which Jesus himself was born. And, secondly, there was just this sense of being in the presence of one who was waiting in longing love for the one who is to come. It was a deeply humbling and inspiring experience, and a great lesson in, precisely, the virtue of hope.
What then, finally about love? Charity, the catechism tells us, is simply loving God and our neighbour for God's sake, and surely - the text seems to assume - we all know what love is. And this is, of course, profoundly right and true. Our love of God, if it is the real thing, is not unrelated to our love for each other, our concern for the suffering of the world, our diligence at work and our care for our families, the delight we take in our spouse, our children and our friends. If we think of love of God as somehow separate from all of this, we are certainly looking in the wrong direction.
But although, thank God, we may have had many glimpses in our own experience of giving and receiving human love to help us to understand what it is to love God and be loved by him, it is also, sadly, true that our experiences of human relationships may have damaged our capacity to recognise, and to give and receive love, even from God. This has little to do with the orthodoxy of our belief or the sophistication or accuracy of our theology: we read in our scriptures, and of course we believe on the authority of those scriptures , that God is love. But if our experience of human love has been too painful or destructive, we can find ourselves trying to escape from that love, running away from God. The good news of course, whose dawning we celebrate at this time of year, is that God will not let us escape. In Jesus, he runs after us, shows us what he is really like, shows us that there is nothing to fear in love, though a love that brings our God to be born in a stable and die on a Cross for love of us should certainly compel our awe.
But this message can be a surprisingly difficult one to accept, even though at the deepest level, we all know our need of it. How can reflecting on the Christmas story, with Mary at its heart, help here?
First, I think that it can help to purify our understanding of love, from a certain kind of sentimentality, even a certain kind of emotional self-indulgence, certainly, but also from a sort of cynical harshness that refuses emotion altogether, and which actually maybe comes in part from confusing sentimentality with sentiment.
Throughout the ages artists, poets and composers have - rightly of course - celebrated the sheer loveliness of the first Christmas night: the song of the angels, the adoration of the shepherds, the mutual tenderness of the aged Joseph and the young Virgin, and their shared, astonished joy as they watch over the manger. We doubtless all have our favourite depictions of that scene, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with them inspiring in us a warm, even nostalgic sense of longing and affection and a generous desire to give of our goods, and of ourselves. That just is what we should expect the sight of a vulnerable little family group, with a new born baby at its heart, to inspire.
Pope Emeritus Benedict, in a meditation for Advent and Christmas makes an observation which I find very interesting here, and very touching. He acknowledges that some in the Church are sharply critical of the way in which the "world" has taken over the celebration of Christmas, and there is surely much to object to in the frenzied buying and selling we see on our high streets at this time of the year, and the materialism it cynically breeds and feeds in our society. But there is another side, he suggests, to the way in which even those who do not consider themselves religious, who might find the idea of coming to Church even at Christmas completely outside their comfort zone, still hold on to something of the meaning of Christmas, of what Pope Benedict calls the most "profound and basic emotional memory within us, namely the memory of the God who became a child".
Some of the ways in which this is expressed are more obvious - and more obviously good - than others. Charities have Christmas appeals with good reason and to good effect: the sight of the baby in the manger, the little family whose housing situation is, at least for the moment precarious and who are soon to be refugees fleeing for their lives finds some all too obvious echoes in our contemporary world. It's not surprising, but it is heartening, to go carol singing in the Grand Arcade here in Cambridge, as I do every year with our students, to raise money for the chaplaincy's SVP conference whose members befriend the homeless on the streets of our affluent city, and to see people of all faiths and none willingly contributing to our collection. But perhaps even the over-the-top consumerism that marks this time of year, the keeping-up-with-the Joneses aspect of gift-giving, the manic determination to give our families the perfect Christmas, however crippling the cost of getting that stack of this year's must-have gadgets for the kids who will face social death at school next term without them, perhaps all of that is indeed a response, faint and unacknowledged as it may be, to the ultimate gift-giving of God in coming down into this world for us and for our salvation. Pope Benedict uses the hauntingly lovely image here of starlight, suggesting that, in our culture when so many people seem to think of Christianity as a thing of the past, something that gave shape and meaning, perhaps, to the lives of our grandparents, but which is now irrevocably consigned to history, nevertheless the longing to give that the Christmas season seems to inspire so generally is like the shining of a long-dead sun in a distant galaxy, only now reaching us on earth. Although the fire of faith that energised their ancestors has perhaps been extinguished, the afterglow remains, inspiring acts of generosity and compassion that those of us still blessed with that holy fire should never despise, and which indeed, not infrequently, shame the lukewarm-ness of our own welcome to the holy child.
So we should not be too quick to dismiss the loving sentiments inspired by the Christmas story, however distantly, as mere sentimentality. Often enough, they may indeed turn out to be a response to the faint, perhaps even distorted, memories of the God who became a child. But there is, of course, another quite straightforward way in which reflecting on the events of the first Christmas, with Mary at their heart, can help us to distinguish between sentiment and sentimentality, between true love and its counterfeit.
The Gospels do not give us many details of the life of the Holy Family. But it doesn't take much thought or imagination to realise that there are some images - both literal pictures on Christmas cards, and verbal pictures in the words of Christmas carols and the like, which are wildly inaccurate. The stable at Bethlehem, like the green hill far away outside the city wall of Jerusalem, was the scene of an unimaginably beautiful outpouring of the love of God. But that didn't mean that it was pretty, any more than Calvary was pretty. And it may be charming - it is charming, and there's nothing wrong, I think, with tearing up a bit when we hear it year on year - when the infants' class sing of that baby away in a manger, "Little Lord Jesus no crying he makes". But I suspect that would have been news to our Blessed Lady. The little Lord Jesus was God incarnate, of course, but he was God incarnate as a human baby, and human babies do cry. Neither her little one's divine nature, nor her own immaculate conception would have protected Mary from the utter exhaustion experienced by all new mothers, precisely because there is absolutely nothing sinful about either a baby crying for food and shelter, or a mother being drained by her child's demands. Both are simply part of what it is to be human.
And, of course, the few specific facts we do know from the gospels about the circumstances of the conception and birth of Jesus suggest that Mary had her own particular, but quite straightforwardly human difficulties to face. The stigma, in her time and place, of perceived illegitimacy, the enforced exile in Egypt, and so on. All of this means, of course, that she is full of natural human sympathy for other suffering mothers, especially and most obviously the marginalised and oppressed. But it teaches us, too, something about the nature of love itself. As with Mary's, the proof of our love is not the emotional warmth that may accompany it – and, when it does, we should recognise it as God’s good gift to us, of course - but, rather, the day to day giving of self to those we love, costly and apparently unrewarding as this will sometimes seem to be.
So faith doesn't mean suppressing our questioning, hope doesn't mean living in cloud-cuckoo land, love doesn't mean wallowing in fuzzy sentimentality. This is, most fundamentally because, as the catechism tells us, it is through faith, hope and love that we come to share the life of God himself, and the God who is love is also truth itself. If we are seeking the truth, seeking to live in the truth, seeking to face up to the truth, we are not far from the Kingdom. And, in all of this we have Mary, not only as our inspiration and example, but also